Rugby World Cup Daily: The twists and turns of a rugby journey

These daily files will give you the latest reporting from around the World Cup as well as betting lines, what to watch for information and best reads. Check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from France.

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THE LEAD: Leota; Anscombe; Leali’ifano – the twists and turns of a rugby journey

The twists and turns of a rugby journey are often what make the realisation of a Rugby World Cup dream all the more special.

Whether it be through injury, hardship, a sliding doors contract moment or any other fork in the road, the players who reach the highest level almost always have a unique story to tell. And Rugby World Cup 2023 is littered with them, as you will see from today’s World Cup daily file.

Take Rob Leota, for instance, who was all signed and ready to take an opportunity in France with Top 14 club Castres Olympique, only for the Wallabies to come knocking at almost the 11th hour.

Had it not been for that original call-up in 2021, Leota would have linked up with head coach Pierre Henry Broncon at the French club. But fast forward a couple of years and Broncon is now working with the Wallabies in France, barking orders at Leota while he runs about at training with Australia.

“I just obviously had chats from the Wallabies, it caught me off guard to be honest, because I was ready to head over to Castres, but I wasn’t due to go over until later in the year,” Leota explained on Thursday afternoon.

“So I made that first camp and then had to negotiate to stay back in Melbourne. Obviously I’ve still got a good relationship with Pierre now and two years later he ends up being one of our coaches, so we ended up linking up anyway.”

“Back then I didn’t know where I could have been, I was just ready to shoot off to a new adventure. But looking back now from where I am at now, I’m just really grateful for the journey and for the opportunity I have been given now from the Wallabies. It’s always been a childhood dream, so I’m just blessed to represent Australia now.”

Leota also explained how tough it was to cling to the dream of making it as a rugby player in Victoria, which is saturated by Australian Rules football. The Wallabies have four Victorian-born players in their World Cup squad, with Jordan Uelese, Pone Fa’aumasili and Rob Valetini joining Leota in the World Cup squad.

“For me, growing up, I sort of thought Australian Schoolboys was the pinnacle, I didn’t really see Super Rugby or anything [as possible],” Leota said. “So that transition going from schoolboy level to actually being in a professional system took me a bit to transition because I was young; but I still had good guys around me when I was coming up.

“But for sure, that challenge of AFL, I didn’t really play it at school growing up, it was mainly just club [rugby] and the only comps we had was national comps, to go and play against Queensland and New South Wales. But it was definitely challenging when AFL was the biggest sport down in Victoria.”

When Wales’ Gareth Anscombe, meanwhile, runs on Saturday in Nice, it will be a moment where he can park four years of rugby hell. The fly-half was set to be Wales’ go-to man at the 2019 World Cup, but then in a warm-up match against England, he suffered a catastrophic ACL injury. It would see him miss two years of action.

In an interview with the Daily Mail back in December 2021, he detailed how the third operation he required saw them intentionally break his right tibia, and then insert a bone graft from a doner into his right knee. He made his comeback, but injuries have since plagued him – he missed the 2023 Six Nations through a shoulder injury he picked up in the autumn Tests, and then a few months on, just as he was getting back up to full-speed in the pre-World Cup training camp, he injured his thumb.

But he’s pushed through time and time again and on Saturday, he holds the keys to No.10 as Wales look to make it two from two against Portugal.

“Looking forward to Saturday and Gareth gets an opportunity, we know in the past when he has started for Wales, the success record he has had at number 10 has been excellent,” Gatland said on Thursday.

“He hasn’t had a lot of rugby, he picked up a thumb injury in Turkey in terms of breaking his thumb, he’s recovered from that, back in training, he’s looking sharp. I’m looking forward to seeing him out there on Saturday.

“2019 was disappointing, he’s had a few injuries and things over the last years but back fit and he’s excited. In fairness to him he did a brilliant job last week for us in terms of the boys that weren’t involved, prepping the team for us, and Dan Biggar has done a really good job this week as well.

“It’s an important role, not about the 15 or the 23, it’s a squad of 33 and they all play a really important part. If you are not involved, there is a role to play in terms of what you need to do in term of the week in helping everyone prepare.”


Uruguay give France an almighty fright

Scoring a truly impressive try in just the sixth minute to open the scoring, Uruguay showed they’re bringing much more than just grit and determination to this World Cup after they pushed France’s second-string side all the way to the final minutes at Pierre Mauroy stadium.

Shocking Fiji at the 2019 edition in Japan, Uruguay were determined to do so again, this time against the host nation and were only a couple of successful lineouts away from doing so on Friday morning [AEST].

Winger Nicolas Freitas touched down early in the piece after he collected an impressive cross-field kick from Felipe Aliaga, dotting it down in the corner to give his side the lead, before Baltazar Amaya scored the team’s second try later in the piece.

But Melvyn Jaminet’s boot and three scores to Antoine Hastoy, Peato Mauvaka and Louis Bielle-Biarrey kept France clear and sealed their second victory of the tournament.

Ireland’s Hansen gets a glimpse into life on the other side of the fence

Australia-raised Mack Hansen will make his Rugby World Cup debut for Ireland on Saturday, just a few years after he packed up his life and moved across the other side of the world for a contract with Connacht.

Hansen has been a star for Ireland on their winning run, which now extends all the way back to their loss in their first Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand last year. But he hasn’t lost touch with his Australian roots either, the winger getting some insights into just how much some of his old mates are enjoying themselves in France.

“A lot of my mates are over. It’s tough getting Snapchats of them smoking vapes and drinking beer while I’m trying to prepare for the game. It’s good craic,” Hansen said Thursday.

“It will be good to catch up with them. It’s been nice to get that aspect, outside of playing, and seeing how much the World Cup means to people.

“People have been planning this for the last four years so seeing everybody really enjoying themselves is great.”

Hansen will start in the No. 14 jersey in what is a first-string side to face Tonga, who sat the opening weekend of fixtures out, in Nantes on Saturday night. With a potentially pool-defining clash to come next week against the Springboks, Ireland coach Andy Farrell is looking to build continuity ahead of the Stade de France showdown.



New Zealand vs. Namibia:

The All Blacks have little to gain from what is expected to be an absolute cakewalk against Namibia, who were last week crushed by Italy in their opening encounter.

New Zealand coach Ian Foster has however taken the opportunity to give some of the wider members of his squad a run, with Cam Roigard and Damian McKenzie combining in a new halves pairing. Only Beauden Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali’i and Sam Whitelock retain their places from the run-on side that lost to France last Friday, with the veteran second-rower set to join Richie McCaw as the most capped All Blacks player of all time when he runs out for his 148th cap.

Foster will however want to see genuine improvement at scrum time, and in the air, two areas where they ran into some trouble against France.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘experiment’. We certainly have got a couple of areas we really want to focus on and I’m probably not going to share what they are just yet,” Foster said Wednesday.

“You have to make sure you grow your game. You’ve got to get your performance right and be forward looking.”

Namibia managed three penalty goals in a 71-6 hammering by the same opposition four years ago, scoring a try against the three-time champions might well be one of their key goals this time around.


– Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament after scans revealed a “long-term” knee injury, which he suffered at training on Wednesday. One of two specialist hookers alongside Bongi Mbonambi, South Africa have not decided to immediately replace Marx. They will instead ponder their options over the next few days and whether Deon Fourie – who can also cover hooker – is really up to the front-row task that South Africa will face first against Ireland, and then later in the tournament.

– Four years after he started at fly-half in the Wallabies’ quarterfinal loss to England, veteran No. 10 Christian Leali’ifano will wear the blue jersey of Samoa in Saturday’s clash with Chile. Leali’ifano was on Thursday named to start at fly-half ahead of former All Blacks pivot Lima Sopoaga in what will be Samoa’s first match of the tournament after they sat out the opening weekend. It is another remarkable turn in Leali’ifano’s story, after the former Brumbies playmaker beat leukaemia to take his place in the Wallabies squad in 2019.

He has since gone on to become an integral part of start-up Super Rugby Pacific franchise Moana Pasifika, which first put the thought of an allegiance change to represent his Samoan heritage at Test level into action.

“They’re very similar in their roles and I expect them to control the game and manage our team over the full 80 minutes,” Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua said of his playmakers. “Having two high-quality playmakers that’s unheard of for us so we feel very lucky and blessed.

“Whether it’s Christian starting with Lima coming on or the other way around, I know we’ll have the same quality for 80 minutes and that’s an exciting thing for me.”


‘Belt him, belt him’: Why Fiji are the same same, but different for the Wallabies in 2023

Four years on from their narrow escape in Sapporo, the Wallabies say they recognise Fiji represent a far greater challenge, but one still certain to dish out some defensive punishment — to those with whom they share heritage in particular.